Prologue: Opening with Thoreau
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3 Prologue Opening with Thoreau Rediscovering the wild may ultimately be an act of discovery, but initially and fundamentally it will be a process of collective memory. — ​Terry Osborne On a midwinter day in January 1855, Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal that he had been reading environmental history again. On this occasion, he was perusing an early seventeenth-­ century account of New England’s natural resources published by William Wood. New England’s Prospect was the sort of tract intended to beguile potential colonists with images of fabulous abundance  — ​ the fabled bounty of the New World  — ​ while tantalizing investors who might underwrite the requisite ships for shuttling settlers and then carrying back furs, commercial cargo, including raw materials such as timber, and delicacies such as barrels of pickled fish, whose subsistence value for settlers had to be weighed against their commercial worth as exports. Literature promoting early British settlement was prone to making extravagant and dubious claims; by contrast, Wood’s tone was considerably more measured  — ​ at moments even literary  — ​ than the exaggerated accounts of exuberant, early boosters who often relied primarily on hearsay, having no firsthand experience traveling in the New World themselves. In fact, he would be credited with publishing “the earliest comprehensive record of New England’s natural resources at the beginning of the European settlement.” 1 Clearly, he viewed the project as revisionist precisely because he deemed so many previously published accounts to be “imperfect,” “false,” and even “scandalous.” 2 When Wood returned to England in 1633, European colonization in New England was still primarily along the coastline, and still so scant Reimagining Environmental History 4 inland that not so much as a single village had yet been successfully established there. Consequently, he emphasized resources along the shore, such as fish that were unimaginably plentiful in proximity to existing settle­ ments, including “an abundance of salmon, shad, and bass,” as well as “multitudes” of alewives, banks of foot-­ long oysters choking the shoals, and sturgeon reaching up to eighteen feet in length that were routinely preserved by pickling for shipment to England.3 Alewives, spawning in rivers in astonishing numbers, could profitably be processed as herring; he reported watching “ten thousand taken in two hours by two men without any weir.” 4 The colonists feasted seasonally on any number of marine, anadromous, and freshwater species, ranging from mackerel to shad and eels. Striped bass, a particularly prized delicacy, arrived on annual runs along the coast in such abundance that a lone Indian or English angler could readily catch as many as fifty or sixty during a single high tide by fishing with a simple hook and line. The indigenous peoples of the region had long relied on an eclectic diet  — ​ hunting and fishing, gathering and planting — ​one that directly reflected and capitalized on the region’s striking biodiversity, also recorded in Prospect: “In wintertime they have all manner of fowls of the water and of the land, and beasts of the land and water, pond-­ fish, with [herbs] and other roots, Indian beans, and clams. In the summer, they have all manner of seafish, with all sorts of berries.” 5 Lobsters were so commonplace that Indians usually used them for bait when fishing, while many settlers actually thought them not worth eating at all. Indeed, “there is no country known,” Wood boasted, “that yields more variety of fish winter and summer.” 6 Given the remarkable diversity of species, these year-­round fisheries held enormous potential for commercial export to European markets, especially considering the size of the fish then being caught. What struck Thoreau, reading centuries later, was the extent of wildlife decline since that time. Thoreau began to contemplate the epic drop in game populations during the two intervening centuries, as William Cronon recounts in his classic “Changes in the Land,” cataloging predators and prey extirpated from the region entirely. The list was alarmingly long, beginning with major mammals, including game that had undoubtedly served as a dietary staple for the first generations of colonists. These early settlers had already quickly engaged Native Americans in the fledgling fur trade. Wood reported that Indians had historically trapped for their own use bears, beavers , cats, deer, foxes, moose, otters, and wolves. By the 1630s, however, 5 Prologue: Opening with Thoreau they were trading with the British, exchanging both furs and meat of beavers , otters, raccoons, wildcats, and wolves for European goods. Without Wood’s account, along with those of his seventeenth-­ century brethren, we would...